30 Years
30 Stories

The brand that started it all, Chaco celebrates 30 years of stepping into adventure in the iconic outdoor sandal. From the first pair off the line, to the ‘socko’ revolution, we celebrate with 30 stories that shaped the brand. Learn how you can win a pair here.

1.

"Socks & Sandals? Don't mind if I do."

 
1.

"Socks & Sandals? Don't mind if I do."

It’s an age-old question, really. Socks and sandals? However, in Chaco Nation, the question turns itself into the answer, and the answer is called “Sockos”.

Look up #sockos on Instagram, and you’ll find over 4,600 posts of socks and Chacos. And this phenomenon isn’t relegated to the cool eves of summer months. You’ll find sockos in the snow aplenty. Around the campfire. Paired with shorts, skirts, and high fashion dresses. Worn casually in a tent or as team wear in schools.

Socks and sandals might be the dadwear of yore, but these days, dadwear is cool. And the brand loyal Chaco Nation is embracing the vibe and taking it technical. A pair of Z1s paired with socks extends the sandal-wearing season into the shoulder months, and if you’re a winterphobe like myself, that’s a good thing. Nothing is more foreboding than the day I put my Chacos in the closet to gather dust for the Montana winter.

Chaco has even doubled down on the vibe from a product development standpoint. The all new Z-Ronin takes the socko to the next level and combines the look of sockos into the makeup of a shoe. The Z-Ronin drops in 2019 for $130, allowing you to pursue the Socko phenomenon even further.

2.

"My Dog Ate My Chacos"

 
2.

"My Dog Ate My Chacos"

If the ReChaco crew could point a finger at their most loyal demographic, it would have four legs, a wagging tail, and a dedication to the delight of destruction.

“Dogs keep us in business, really” CS Supervisor James tells us, only half-joking. And the ReChaco factory bulletin board is resplendent with pictures of smiling pups with favorite sandals at their paws, the straps chewed, the buckles a midday snack, the heavy duty rubber soles typically holding their own against rows and rows of canine teeth.

The dogs write in letters on their own, explaining the deliciousness of a sweaty, sumptuous sandal, and many, their lack of remorse in the matter. And their humans send in personal notes of apologies for their beloved four-legged friends.

“My puppy decided my sandal would make a good chew toy! Too cute to be mad for long,” one letter puts it. There are stacks of photos of pups with the words “THE CULPRIT”, each one smiling and innocent in their canine bliss. One golden retriever pup sits next to a row of at least six pairs of Chacos, each sandal adorned with a special toothy touch.

“My kind knows not what they do,” Butch Cassidy the border collie replied wearily when asked about the destruction, “It’s sad, you know? But perhaps Chaco should remarket the sandal as a shoe chew. Then, none of us would feel bad about how it turns out in the end.”

Butch turned away from the interview to stare intently at the pair of Z1s on my feet. He deeply sighed then looked up and said, “I’ve never actually tried one. Do you mind if I taste yours?”

With the ReChaco program only a post office trip away, resistance was futile. He gave the shoes an 11 out of 10. Five stars. Delicious. Would chew again.

3.

"It All Started With Tracing A Foot"

 
3.

"It All Started With Tracing A Foot"

River Guide Mark Paigen was having trouble with his shoes as he guided clients through the rapids of the Gunnison. They weren’t holding on, and they weren’t holding up. A former custom shoemaker, Paigen looked to the burgeoning sport sandal industry for inspiration.

The continuous pull-through strap was the basis of the shoe, eliminating velcro and adding adjustability. The strap would be anatomically correct, and the sole would need to be durable. Paigen began crafting each sandal by hand.

Clients began asking about the shoe. When people would ask about the shoe, he’d trace their feet on cardboard and make a custom pair for $30. Back then, he called them Geckos. The amphibious shoes reminded him of the tiny creatures sticky feet. A few shops began to carry them. The wheels were turning.

In 1991, he switched from a custom handhewn footbed to a molded polyurethane base. The sandal began to sell. Geckos were making their mark. A legacy in motion.

4.

"We came to Michigan with 6 people and a truck full of sandal beds"

 
4.

"We came to Michigan with 6 people and a truck full of sandal beds"

In 2008, Chaco was in need of a new home. And with promises to keep the ethos of the brand intact, the long-time Colorado company packed its bags and headed to Rockford, Michigan. There, they joined forces with Wolverine, the boot brand behind the continued success of Merrell, Sperry, Saucony, Keds, and more.

Nearly eleven years later, Wolverine stayed true to its promises. And some of the original Colorado crew remains intact in Rockford. For ten years, Chaco and Wolverine have worked in tandem to build a shoe that represents a community of outdoors people and the community has responded in kind. With letters, and visits, and recycled shoes that hold memories as well as feet. It’s a testament to a trajectory, and if the past decade has anything to say about this thirty-year-old brand, it’s that it’s here to stay.

5.

"This sandal is Zee One."

 
5.

"This sandal is Zee One."

Names are funny things. They stick around for lifetimes, take on new iterations and forms, they’re a label that continues to shape and reshape the meaning behind something. Such is the case with the iconic Z1 sandal.

As all things of legend, the sandal was nameless until Chaco founder Mark Paigen went hiking with a friend, and upon asking the friend what he’d call the sandal, the friend responded in a cheesy french accent, “This sandal is Zee One!” Z/1. Silly and simple. And adorning the feet of river rats since the early nineties.

Many Z’s have followed, but zee sandal that shall occupy that first step toward a movement, that sandal is forever Zee One.

6.

“Engineers Can’t Figure Out A Better Way To Thread A Sandal”

 
6.

“Engineers Can’t Figure Out A Better Way To Thread A Sandal”

Stop by the ReChaco factory in Rockford, Michigan. And if you’re not careful, you might catch your shirt on a bent nail.

But that wouldn’t just be any bent nail. That is a feat of human ingenuity. It’s a necessary tool to making a Chaco, a Chaco. If you were paying attention to that bent nail, you might see that it’s actually an apparatus that’s threaded hundreds, nay, thousands of sandals.

“We’ve had engineers come in and see if they can build something that’s faster. It’s a negative,” the shop manager James told us, as two women threaded sandals so quickly, so deftly that it took mere seconds to accomplish.

“We’ll slow down so you can see the process,” they acquiesced as we tried to take photos. Hands blurred. Time stopped. It was harder for them to go slower than faster. It was a reminder that expertise comes in many forms, including the tactile. And that human ingenuity starts with scarcity rather than knowledge.

7.

"There's magic in empowering our creative community"

 
7.

"There's magic in empowering our creative community"

“If there’s anything that continually surprises us, it’s the amount of creativity our community has when it comes to their Chacos.” President Seth Cobb told his employees. This was a ribbon cutting of a sort for the ten-year-old factory. The Print Shop opened for business and the staff celebrated with lunch, togetherness, and a moment of gratitude.

With the success of the extremely popular MyChacos program and the brand new Print Shop finally in motion, Cobb stood in front of the Chaco team and made this statement:

“There’s magic in empowering our creative community.” Cobb called out the people who had worked the long hours and tackled the tough problems to make the Print Shop a reality. He thanked the entire staff for their hard work and resilience. Like any job, there were duties waiting. But not every business works to empower the consumer to be the creative director of their own vision. This was an all-in moment. Gratitude was in order. The Chaco team took a moment to live in that gratitude. And then, back to the grind.

8.

"Chaco Takes On The Rivers, The Mountains, The City, And The Sea."

 
8.

"Chaco Takes On The Rivers, The Mountains, The City, And The Sea."

Where do you wear your Chacos? Perhaps in a drift boat, or to the grocery, or, classically, in the red dirt of desert riverbanks. Your Z tan growing ever more prominent with each passing day.

The designers at Chaco have more than just red riverbanks on the mind. They’re pushing the boundaries of where Chacos can and will go. Burly soles for mountain trekking? Check. Leather sandals that keep your Z tan intact? They’ve got that too. Packs for your everyday carry needs? Yep. Waterproof boots for snow days? The brand has eyes for that, too.

“We want to capture different moments of our community’s lives,” President Seth Cobb explained, “The Z can encompass so many energies.” And it does already. People have been married in Chacos, volunteered internationally, traversed landscapes, and sailed across oceans. And the varied options exist, and they’re coming. As the saying goes:

If the shoe fits, wear it.

9.

"I trekked 100 miles with Masai warriors"

 
9.

"I trekked 100 miles with Masai warriors"

If there’s a face for Chaco, Lisa Kondrat might be it. She’s been a carrier of the brand and an executor of its sustainability, creativity, and function for 19 years. She’s moved her life from Colorado to Michigan in service to a community. She can give you all the numbers for everything they’ve accomplished. The sandals kept out of landfills, the customized shoes they’ve built for years, the amount of growth she’s been able to sustain in her factory, from six jobs to over seventy.

And she’ll tell you that a defining moment, for her, was trekking in her beloved sandals for 100 miles with the legendary Massai warriors of Kenya. She’ll pull out her pictures of the beautiful shoes of the Masai, of her strong feet next to theirs, and she’ll tell you about the women who accompanied her on the trip.

She’ll also show you the sandal she brought back from Kenya. A nailed-together, crude, yet familiar rubber sandal. With details not unlike the ones she builds in her shop. She’s an adventurer, a grandmother, a savvy and thoughtful leader, and the embodiment of Chaco’s ethos. She’s Chaco’s Director of Planning and Operations. And she herself is a warrior.

10.

“Here are my soles souls.”

 
10.

“Here are my soles souls.”

That line was written on a note sent with a pair of beat-up, broken down Chacos on their journey to being ReChaco’d. Or more succinctly, these souls were getting fixed.

The ReChaco program routinely refurbishes 30,000 Chaco sandals per year. For minimal costs, the shoe can be resoled, rewebbed, and rebuckled back into functional existence. It’s an easy gimme in the world of sustainable and eco-friendly products, but the bigger importance lies in the sentimental value that accompanies sandals in the forms of notes, pictures, drawings, and stories. People send bribes of chocolate, cookies, and other delicacies to ensure safe passage for their sandals.

According to letters we found, Chaco sandals have: followed cattle prints in China, hiked mayan ruins in Mexico, aided the betrothed through multiple weddings, been eaten by dogs, traversed the Swiss Alps, joined the Peace Corps, partied at summer camp, gone to college for multiple degrees, helped Steve Zahn go fishing, walked through snow in Crested Butte, Colorado, walked the sandy beaches of Costa Rica, and survived life at the bottom of a lake. Among many other adventures.

Long live those that live well. And may they do it in shoes that live up to those lives.

11.

"In 2018, my Chacos kicked up dust in seventeen national parks"

 
11.

"In 2018, my Chacos kicked up dust in seventeen national parks"

It’s true. This GearJunkie wore her Z/1’s to seventeen national parks in 2018. The Chacos weren’t especially special, just the Chacos I found at an REI in California when I realized my old non-Chacos were dead forevermore. I was done with the insolence of bad sandals failing. A black pair with rainbow webbing awaited me, the only Chacos in my size. My mind was made up. Quality over quantity.

I lived ten months on the road in search of public land experiences that year, and until the cold hit, my New Reliables were really the only shoe I needed to pack. I wore them beneath flowing dresses in Baja California and with my backpack on in Escalante. I navigated Pacific Northwestern tide pools and redwood forests. I canoed fifty miles of Utah’s Green River, and the red sediment of the beaches still sits in the porous spaces of the shoe. Seventeen national parks, endless expanses of public land, camping night after night in places I’d never seen, never understood, until stepping foot in them.

And with Chacos on my feet, I picked up trash around every corner, took note of the wear and tear our human existence was having on the American West. I left with other people’s belongings in hand, but only my footprints behind. I felt solid and grounded in my connection to the planet. And grateful to wear a shoe that aligned to these values. I left the West better than I found it, and all on my own rainbow-webbed two feet.

12.

"High Fashion, Quality Conscience"

 
12.

"High Fashion, Quality Conscience"

“We’re big in Japan,” President Seth Cobb tells me as I ask where Chaco makes its most fashionable impact.

“The Japanese are freaks for quality. And in Japan, Chacos are high fashion with a quality conscience.”

Japanese consumers are undoubtedly trendsetters in the ways of the outdoors, and their zest for functional fashion expands into many outdoor brands. But Chaco’s hold on the Japanese imagination brings the brand to the forefront of high fashion.

It’s not just the Japanese that are zealots for Chacos as a staple of the wardrobe, Chaco’s hold on the culture of colleges and universities in the American South is as fierce as the rivalries between them. A consumer research study found that 80% of southern university students wore Chacos, a brand saturation that is nearly unheard of in any demographic. And beyond that, the highly traditional and insular nature of summer camps has also become a boon for the brand.

Is it any wonder that a functional shoe with high customizability might find a place in niche markets that appreciate functionality? Not to this writer. And if my college friends had all jumped off a bridge, I might have too. Though I’d hope we’d all be wearing our Chacos, because navigating the rocky bottom of a stream barefoot is no joke.

13.

"I wouldn't go barefoot for fear of losing my Z tan"

 
13.

"I wouldn't go barefoot for fear of losing my Z tan"

That’s one piece of what Lisa Kondrat told me about her trip to Africa. She’s Chaco’s Director of Planning and Operations, and a Z tan aficionado. As someone who has cultivated and deeply cared for a Z tan herself, I caught what she was throwing. It’s not just a tan line, no. It’s a statement of how much time the Chaco wearer has spent in the sun. And spending time in the sun means that you’re not inside. And when you’re not inside, well, you’re having fun.

A Z tan is simply a measure of how fun you are. It’s a status symbol of commitment to a life outside. If I witness a Z tan on another human body, I have to ask what it is they’ve been doing. I have to know their secret to such a melanin-enriched contrast.

And the fun abounds when it comes to those of us who cultivate this status symbol proudly. A Z tan is a story to be told, and a memory to carry. It’s that first recognition that the weather has turned and our feet are sunward facing once again. It’s an homage to vacation, summer or otherwise. And a casual nod to a life lived casually.

A Z tan is a story told boldly. What story will you tell this summer?

14.

“Chacos Go Pop Cultural, And They Go Big”

 
14.

“Chacos Go Pop Cultural, And They Go Big”

How does a piece of footwear go from casual to iconic? When that piece of footwear gives the iconic a moment to be casual.

Such was the vibe when First Lady Michelle Obama wore Chacos while she was in the White House, accompanying a casual outfit that any mom could relate to. NFL star DeAngelo Williams also dug into the Chaco Nation when he supplied his Pittsburgh Steelers with custom team-colored MyChacos.

“The guys were pretty funny about it, until they put them on and didn’t want to take them off,” he wrote Chaco in a note.

A personal favorite of mine while digging through the archives was an email titled “From That Guy In The Plane Movie”. I pulled out a pic of Steve Zahn, holding a fish in one hand and a Z/1 in the other. “Fall in BC baby! Steelhead on the Dean!” is the quick email Zahn writes to the crew.

In thirty years, Chacos have made their way from the river to the White House. A pop culture success, in the making.

15.

"Strengthening the current in our hometown of Grand Rapids"

 
15.

"Strengthening the current in our hometown of Grand Rapids"

Chaco’s hometown of Rockford, Michigan is on the cusp of the greater city of Grand Rapids. Once a trading point for natives and settlers, the city was named for the rapids in the Grand River at its core. But for over 150 years, those rapids have sat dormant, dammed and dredged by industry.

A project called Grand Rapids Whitewater aims to restore the rapids and the river back to a natural state. And recreation is at the forefront. With that in mind, Chaco has jumped on as a sponsor and a partner in the project, ready to dig into their home river just a few miles from their door.

“This type of project is a lightning rod for outdoor recreation,” said Josh Wiechhand, Creative Director for Chaco. “And the Chaco brand embodies recreation. It’s an obvious project for us to support.” And support they have. Chaco developed a custom Grand Rapids Whitewater-themed sandal that quickly sold out at a local festival. The river will have kayaking and fishing opportunities aplenty. When I asked if Weichhand planned to float the river in 2025, his response was immediate.

“Yes, absolutely. And my little boy will be big enough to float it with me then. And I can show him how we’ve made the city a better place for his generation.”